It’s time for a federal takeover of national elections

As Florida continues to find ballots stashed in warehouses, it has become abundantly clear that individual states can no longer be trusted to administer free and fair elections.

It is time for the federal government to create an independent, non-partisan body charged with administering elections.

Unlike the Federal Elections Commission, whose authority is limited to the financing of campaigns, this body would be granted the following responsibilities to ensure that our elections are free and fair regardless of who you are, where you live or for whom you intend to vote:

PA machine won't let vote for Obama

In PA, numerous voting machines wouldn’t let people vote for Obama.

Universalize Voter Registration

A federal voter registrar should be established to ensure that every eligible citizen is registered to vote somewhere. Every year millions of eligible citizens are kept from voting due to various rules, restrictions and barriers that different states place upon voter registration – in 2008, the number exceeded President Obama’s margin of victory.

Universal voter registration is not an alien idea, either; 84% of European countries currently have some form of universal voter registration. Nationalizing and universalizing voter registration would enfranchise millions, resulting in elections that more accurately reflected the will of the people. Moreover, if universal registration were coupled with a national ID card, as it is in many European countries, it would put concerns about voter impersonation fraud to bed.

A second example of a voting machine not permitting a vote for Obama.

Standardize the Ballot

This year, Connecticut’s absentee ballots were mailed without candidates listed – a legal dispute over which party would be listed first on the ballot was not resolved in time for the ballots to be printed, so voters were forced to vote on a write-in-only basis.

In Florida, ballots were up to 12 pages long, costing those who voted by mail up to $1.50 in postage, creating a confusing scanning process for in-person voters and hindering the vote tallying process in many precincts.

A standard ballot, with consistent formatting for all types of races and uniform guidelines for issues such as candidate order, would make it easier for voters to inform themselves and others about what to expect when they show up to vote.

Standardize the Polling Place

In a similar vein, our polling places themselves vary so much across the country that many citizens are unable to cast their ballot. Varying numbers of polling machines and ID restrictions create prohibitively long lines of up to five hours to cast their ballots; taking that much time out of a Tuesday is economically impossible for many voters, especially blue-collar voters (it’s easier to take time off to vote when you’re the boss).

It is time to take voting machines out of the hands of partisan Secretaries of State, and mandate that each polling location be allocated voting machines and paper ballots proportional to the number of registered voters in that precinct.  And perhaps it’s time we stopped permitting partisans from owning companies that make voting machines, then we could stop worrying about machines that change your vote from Obama to Romney, or about “computer glitches” that suddenly make 1,000 early voters (in a black neighborhood, of course) vanish.

Senators Mark Warner (D-VA) and Chris Coons (D-DE) have co-sponsored the Fast, Accurate, Secure and Timely (FAST) Voting Act, which takes a crucial step in the right direction by providing grants for states which show that they have made voting easier and more accessible.

Moreover, while many states do a fine job of regulating activity that occurs in and near the polling place, this year the long lines that extended beyond the bounds of polling places were subject to a series of dirty tricks and attempts to confuse and suppress the votes of predominantly minority and Democratic votes. On Election Day in Virginia, conservative volunteers patrolled the long lines in urban precincts thanking voters for coming out to vote and asking them if they had brought the necessary two forms of photo ID with them (Virginia requires one form of ID and it does not have to include a photo), illegally (and in one instance, forcibly) directing eligible and now-confused voters away from their polling location.

Waiting for all 50 states to pass and enforce meaningful regulations that prevent activities such as these from occurring is a pipe dream at best; federal action is necessary to ensure that voter suppression on this scale is prohibited and prosecuted.

Establish Election Week

The decision to hold Election Day on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November was one of the biggest expansions of the franchise the United States had ever seen — in 1845.

Tuesday was picked so that farmers could make the two-day trek to and from town to vote without missing church or market day (Wednesday). However, with the advent of the car and the considerably more diverse American economy that exists today — it seems the country has changed somewhat in the past 167 years — this no longer makes sense.

To reflect the varying schedules and obligations of our diverse population, many states have increased accessibility to vote by letting citizens vote early. This practice has worked well in the states that have established it, and should be implemented nationwide. While some states offer early voting quite early (Iowans can start casting their ballots more than a month before Election Day), a national voting week would ensure that nobody’s work schedule or weekly routine could prevent them from casting a ballot, while avoiding concerns about whether we’re all really voting in the same election when some of us vote in November, and others in September (thus missing the presidential debates, among other concerns).

The United States prides itself on being the standard-bearer for modern democratic society, encouraging developing republics to model themselves after us in as many respects as possible. However, our voting system is arcane, outdated and prone to manipulation by entrenched interests; it cannot be considered a model for the rest of the world, and it is not worthy of who we are as a people and a nation, until serious changes are made.

Taking the responsibility of administering elections out of the hands of individual states, and setting a clear standard for what an American election should look like, would make our elections freer, fairer and more accurate. After a series of elections fraught with mishaps, federal action is necessary to set things right.

Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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34 Responses to “It’s time for a federal takeover of national elections”

  1. National election polls are a great gauge of voter impressions but too much emphasis is placed on them. The horse race between candidates in any given campaign can leave voters looking at numbers instead of policy. As a result, candidates also focus in on the numbers instead of the issues.

  2. jeffj900 says:

    One important item missing from this list is ballot access rules, i.e. the rules and requirements candidates must follow to appear as a candidate for election on a ballot. These rules vary from state to state and county to county and are rigged by the two major parties to make it harder for independents to run. This is also a major anti-democratic crony system that has been allowed to fester due to our fragmented electoral system.

  3. Mark_in_MN says:

    I understand the idea, and it’s not a bad one, but I think it would also be an unfortunate move in some places. Minnesota has an election system that works very well for us. Indeed, I think of it as a model for the nation. I fear that a nationalization of elections would mean a system with more red tape and frustration and less access for voters. A minority of states allow same-day registration. I think all should allow it, but wouldn’t expect that it would make it through a federalized system. Even with a scheme for universal registration, there will be people who move within the last few weeks before an election, students for whom records taken some time before the election may not always clearly provide their current address, or those who just get missed. And I fear that other things will get mucked up, too. For several elections in a row, Minnesota has lead the nation in voter turnout. That has a lot to do with widespread civic engagement, but it is very much fostered by same-day registration and our overall voting system. A majority of Minnesotans just rejected a major overall in that system, one that would have seriously degraded it. It shouldn’t be messed with. Establish minimum standards. It is badly needed. But still allow states to have their own systems. Or adopt the Minnesota system nationally. One could do worse.

  4. elRey says:

    those of us in the ‘reality based community’ know this will never happen. Why don’t you write about something in the realm of possibility?

  5. Anonymous Coward says:

    Well, it’s quite obvious that you haven’t graduated with your Political Science degree yet, and that you’ve never heard of anything called “regulatory capture.” You should look it up if you think that the federal government would do a better job with the elections – it would just make it that much easier to BUY the election! (Which, by the way, is the entire point behind electronic voting.) FYI: Techdirt talks about the concept all the time.

  6. SkippyFlipjack says:

    You’re acting like you think they really believe that voter fraud is going on, rather than employing a rather insidious but clever technique at suppressing the vote of people who tend to go Democratic

  7. UncleBucky says:

    Require voting, set a fine for not voting (with obvious exceptions for those who cannot vote).

    voting DAY a holiday — all non-essential work is cancelled and those
    who would have to work on voting day (obvious professions and services)
    would vote either a day earlier or later while equipment is still set
    up. With regard to early voting and voting day, no variations. National
    Voting Regulations. Enough of this states’ rights traitor nonsense. :-/

  8. Finn says:

    I don’t know how you create a non-partisan body for this when the people appointing the members are highly partisan (and exclusively from 2 parties). The Federal Judiciary is also supposed to be independent and non-partisan by design and look where that’s headed.

  9. DCinDC says:

    Thank You ANON!

  10. montag says:

    My ideal system would be a standardized ballot form in use with off the shelf hardware run by open source software. Nothing proprietary so no secrets.

  11. Naja pallida says:

    I think that is my biggest gripe about the whole thing; the lack of consistency. Why do residents of different counties, districts, cities, states, have different access to voting and different rules for eligibility? Why do they count their votes differently? Why do we vote in different methods? What happened to equality? If you wonder why so many people feel their vote doesn’t count for anything, and why our voter enthusiasm is so pathetically low compared to other modern democracies, the lack of equality is certainly an important part of it.

  12. BlueShark says:

    AND Independent Boards to establish redistricting to end gerrymandering.

  13. Indigo says:

    Curse Disqus! The wheel-avatar churns (isn’t that cute?) and nothing happens. Nothing, I tell you! Nothing! Now if that isn’t an allegory of voter reform in the States, what is? We have a horse and buggy constitution with horse and buggy enforcement procedures and horse and buggy traditions that go right back to good old Colonial America. That’s more than 200 years of precedent that hasn’t changed much in all that time. We don’t need a piecemeal reform of this and that on a constitution that is a patchwork quilt of rules and suppositions at best. We need a constitutional congress and a fresh start with a new constitution. And I’m not talking about that overloaded piece of crap the EU tried to foist off on the Republic of Ireland.

  14. BeccaM says:

    Agreed. Suffrage should be universal, or as near to it as we can get. I even hesitated on the felon-restoration angle, because I honestly don’t see why a convicted criminal is suddenly decided to be a non-citizen — plus there is the fact states aren’t even consistent on it.

  15. Zorba says:

    I agree.

  16. Naja pallida says:

    I would go as far as to suggest that we eliminate ‘early voting’ and a singular ‘election day’ and just go for a week or longer period where people can cast their vote any time during that time. The the returns are not made public until the final day.

    I would also eliminate voter registration entirely. Voter registration in itself has been used as a means of voter intimidation and suppression. Being a citizen should automatically be your voter registration. Any form of government issued identification should be adequate, and as you say, the whole system should be computerized so all you have to do is show up at any polling place and they look you up and verify your name and address, and assign the votes to the appropriate races.

    Then there’s always the electoral college…

  17. BeccaM says:

    Oh, and while we’re at it? Let’s get serious about getting rid of the Electoral College. I know, it requires either a Constitutional amendment or that kludgey ‘popular vote’ initiative some states are trying to pass — but either way, there should be no such thing as a swing state. Allowing our elections to be determined by one or three states is a recipe for corruption — and for pandering that ignores the needs of the entire nation.

    And yes, we also need some new rules about the primaries. The “Me First!” scheduling it getting ridiculous, and it’s unfair.

  18. Naja pallida says:

    Or simply the natural extension of the Constitution in general… when states fail in their duty to the people, it always falls upon the federal government to address those shortcomings… but really, federal election should equal federal control. Let states handle their own elections, and they can be free to screw up their local elections to their hearts content – but there’s no reason why the whole country should have to suffer because Florida or Arizona are so corrupt and inept that they can’t get their shit together to count the votes in a timely and fair manner.

  19. BeccaM says:

    I agree with all of these points and would add a few more:

    – Restore voting rights to felons who have done their time. (This, by the way, is another method states have been using to deny minority voters their suffrage rights, due in large part to the failed drug war and disproportionate prosecutions for minority offenders.)
    – Standardized and generous early voting days/hours to maximize turnout.
    – Declaration that Election Day as a federal holiday. Ensure that everyone who still has to work that day has access to an absentee ballot if needed (although early voting would help a great deal with this).
    – Stop treating provisional ballots as irrelevant except in close races, and don’t allow some random partisan schmoe free chances to muck with an election with specious challenges targeting specific voters.
    – No reporting on partial returns anywhere until the last polling place closes, period.
    – Voter registration cards are postage free. Mail-in ballots should be similarly exempt.
    – Federal felony-level criminal charges for anyone caught tampering with a U.S. election. Yes, this includes corrupt Secretaries of State.

    Finally, we have computers and the Internet. Heck, a bank or car dealer can check a person’s credit history, address, and lots of other details in seconds. There is actually NO technical reason why we couldn’t have a system that allowed a person to vote anywhere in the country, at any polling place. “Ah, Jane Smith…we have you listed as living at 123 Elm Street, Chicago, is that correct? One second while we print your individualized local ballot.”

  20. Ginger_FL says:


  21. mike31c says:

    Gotta love the RWNJ’s who scream “voting fraud” when in fact it’s the RWNJ’s and red states that are the ones actually committing the fraud.

  22. Zorba says:

    Not to mention the Voting Rights Act of 1965. One could make an argument that a federal take-over of national elections, at least to a certain extent, is a logical extension of the 15th Amendment to the US Constitution.

  23. Quilla says:

    Best. Idea. Ever. Make it so.

  24. BeccaM says:

    Actually, legal non-citizen residents and those here on temporary work visas can get Social Security numbers.

    Still, we have computers and a given number could be checked against a national database to determine eligibility.

  25. A reader in Colorado says:

    Yeah, I agree.

  26. BeccaM says:

    Not if the law includes provisions for secrecy and no reporting of partial returns. As far as I’m concerned, the entire country should have to wait until the last polling place closes in Alaska and Hawaii, and end the ridiculous public spectacle of how election night is currently reported.

  27. BeccaM says:

    Oh I don’t know. The National Voter Registration Act of 1993 didn’t raise any Constitutionality concerns.

    As for ‘willingly’ give up the ability to rig elections? Perhaps so, but this only points to the urgency of dealing with this now before our elections are hopelessly compromised to the point of no-return.

  28. A reader in Colorado says:

    Well, if you have an entire election week, early reporting of partial election results is going to be a killer, since many people, if they believe a certain result is inevitable, will not go vote.

  29. A reader in Colorado says:

    What Republicans do is pass a law, consider it constitutional, and act on it, until such time as the Supreme Court declares it not so.

    What Democrats do is argue whether something is unconstitutional and never pass a law in the first place out of fear that it is so.

  30. Ginger_FL says:

    There is no need for a national “id”….we already have one…it’s called our Social Security number. Anyone who has a number should be allowed to vote…period IMHO. I also think vote by mail ballots should be used to avoid the lines etc. that we have been watching for the past several years. This would also prevent voter intimindation and the idiots from confusing people waiting in line. Next, stop having all those stupid amendments attached to party elections. Put those out to voters separately since most are designed as red meat for the haters anyway.

  31. thaneb says:

    To have any non-partisan panel assumes the parties will be honest in their dealings. The Republicans have already shown this is not the case. Specifically, in December, 2004, Bush appointee to the Civil Rights Commission, Abigail Thernstrom, changed her party affiliation from R to Independent on the day she was appointed thus skirting the Federal Regulation ( 45 CFR 701).

  32. nicho says:

    Pretty sure this requires a constitutional amendment and no state is going to stand for it. The chances that a state will willingly give up the ability to rig elections is between zero and none.

  33. FLL says:

    Federalizing national elections is long overdue. I can’t help but think that the reason for the skullduggery in Florida, and the equally outrageous vote-stealing in Ohio during 2004, is the fact that Florida and Ohio are swing states with lots of electoral votes. Otherwise, corrupt Republican governors wouldn’t bother, would they?

  34. caphillprof says:

    Yes, but you’ll have one hell of a fight from the knuckle dragging GOP.

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